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Bell community activists expressed "relief" Wednesday after multiple guilty verdicts were handed down against former city officials accused of misappropriating public funds as part of a "corrupt regime" that abused taxpayers.
The verdicts delivered Wednesday -- five former city officials were found guilty on multiple counts, and one council member was found not guilty on all counts -- came after the 2010 revelation that city officials were collecting relatively large salaries and serving on boards that did little, if any, work. The six city officials were accused of paying themselves nearly $100,000 salaries.
The lone council member who did not face criminal charges was making about $8,000 per year.
Activists said they were pleased with the verdicts and the "lessons" learned, characterizing the exposure of the scandal and resulting trial as part of a healing process.
"The community has learned its lessons -- it has become more informed, involved, and held its elected officials more accountable," Fidencio Gallardo, of the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse, said in a statement. "The new elected officials in the City of Bell have also done their part -- creating a new government that is more responsible and transparent. It is reassuring to know that our judicial system is not broken, and that justice can be served."
The scandal sparked outrage in the community south of downtown Los Angeles, attracting large crowds to City Council meetings and prompting weeks of protests. Bell elected new council members and a new mayor in the wake of the scandal, which cost the city about $6 million, according to prosecutors.
"Today’s guilty ruling for five of the Bell 6 helps bring some closure and justice to our community," said Bell Mayor Ali Saleh, a founding member of BASTA who was selected as mayor by fellow council members in 2011.
Several Bell residents attended each day of the trial, which began Jan. 24 in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. The guilty verdicts send a message that "predatory behavior will be sought out and prosecuted," the statement continued.
Residents gathered outside Bell City Hall as verdicts were announced.
"They should be boiled," said Lucy Enriquez. "They're stealing from our kids, our parks, our firemen. They came into public office to fill their pockets with money."
Current Councilman Nestor Valencia said the salaries were wrong, regardless of the courtroom outcome.
"We could argue about the legalities all day, but it's still improper," Valencia said. "No one pays themselves $100,000 to do this job. I get $634 a month as a council member now."
The next step involves the trial of Bell's former city manager, Robert Rizzo, and his assistant. Rizzo, accused of masterminding the scheme, and his assistant Angela Spaccia were prosecuted separately for their roles in the case.
"Until there are convictions of every council member and former administrator guilty of criminal actions against the citizens of Bell, Bell residents will not feel that justice has been met," the BASTA statement said. "We now look to the trial of Rizzo and Spaccia and hope that the judicial system continues to do its part."
Wednesday's verdicts bring "some closure," Saleh said, but he added that the community is eager for a similar outcome in the Rizzo case. The city continues to recover from the misuse of public funds, he said.
"There are still trial cases which remain pending -- the trials of those remaining assailants that in my view plundered our City’s resources and shackled Bell’s hardworking families with an overwhelming tax burden,” Saleh said.